College Quarterly
Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
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What's in a Name – and What Names Are In?

by Rob McConkey, B.A., LL.B., M.Ed.

"When someone loves you, they say your name differently. And you know your name will be safe in their mouth."

That observation comes from a little girl about six years old—or at least, I think it does. I first heard it from someone who had found the quotation on the Internet, which means, of course, it may have been apocryphal. But to my mind, it doesn't really matter who said it or made it up.

The first line might strike some people as a bit too saccharine, with its faint echo of Hallmark greeting cards. But in the second line, I submit, something very serious being said, which has nothing to do with sentimentality.

For what does it really mean to suggest that your name could be safe—or unsafe, for that matter—when used by others? This notion hints at the possibility of real danger, implying that names have a certain fragility, and can be somehow damaged or bastardized or lost. So other people have to be careful with them.

I think this notion of safety also clearly demonstrates that our names have real value, which is the essence of my message here today. After all, we don't feel the need to safeguard those things that we consider worthless. It is only when we hold something precious that we worry about other people messing with it, or taking it away from us, and maybe claiming it for their own. So, our names matter—at least to us. Otherwise, we wouldn't even bother with the question of whom to entrust with their care and use.

The universal importance of names is something that anthropologists have long recognized, of course, however much one culture might vary from another in terms of the basis on which such names are chosen and the way in which they given. In his article "Names and Personal Identity," H. Edward Deluzzain (1996) puts the matter in context by focusing first on preliterate peoples, among most of whom, he writes, names are determined:

according to very definite and specific rules. Generally, in cultures with a keen sense of ancestry, children get their names from the totems and family trees of their parents. In some cultures, names are taken from events which happen during the pregnancy of the mother or shortly after the birth of the child, and in others, names are divined through magic and incantation. In some cases, the name given at birth is only the first of several names a person will bear throughout life. When this happens, the new names are given either to mark important milestones in life or to ward off evil spirits by tricking them into thinking that the person with the old name has disappeared.

For some of my students, the adoption of a new English name might be thought of as a way of tricking some people (including themselves) in a similar fashion. But I don't wish to get ahead of myself here. In any case, Deluzzain goes on to note some intriguing parallels that exist between the preliterate naming rituals referred to above and certain elements in the baptismal ceremony of the Catholic Church:

Although in the eyes of the Church the rite of baptism is not primarily a naming ceremony, the giving of the baptismal, or Christian, name is certainly a part of it … Modern Christian theologians speak of baptism as a sacrament of initiation into the church and, in this sense, it serves basically the same purpose as naming ceremonies in preliterate societies. In Christian thought, baptism is a cleansing or reclaiming of the soul of the child, and this takes place under the name the child receives in the ceremony. According to Charles (1951), among preliterate peoples, the act of naming is a bestowal of a soul on the one who receives the name. In either case, though, the effect is the same: the person who receives a name thereby receives an identity and a place within the society.

For most of my students, their new English name is something that they have decided to bestow on themselves—for a whole host of reasons that will be examined later in this paper. Whether these self-christened individuals are in some sense "born again" as a result, or whether they have sold their souls by doing so, are just two of the questions that need to be held in abeyance for the time being.

My particular interest is in the so-called "English" names that so many of our international students come up with, and that we use everyday when teaching them. For instance, when I look down the attendance sheet for my current class, most of whom come from China, I see Catherine and Susan and Brian and Victor, but also a young lady named Echo and a young man named Evo, who began the term as Fish but then changed his mind. (A case of onomastic bait and switch, as it were.)

In its simplest terms, I'm just asking: What is going on here? What are the personal and cultural implications of nickname choice? When a foreign student suddenly becomes "Sean" or "Britney," does this constitute a sellout or repudiation of their own culture? Is it proof of self-hatred or western cultural imperialism? Does it make them wimps or wannabes? Or could it be seen in a kinder light, as a basic, pragmatic gesture meant only to facilitate social acceptance? Or even as a noble attempt at reinventing oneself? In short, what can we make of this whole business of nicknames? More to the point, perhaps: What do our students make of it? At first, I was stumped by all this, but then I came up with a radical idea: Why not ask them? So I did, in the form of a brief questionnaire, and I'll be presenting some of my findings in what follows.

I've also spent some time recently reconsidering another phenomenon, one that seems to offer several instructive parallels: the whole baby-naming process. This is something that had a particular urgency in our household only last year, but I had already forgotten many of the concerns that were raised at that time, the various criteria for name selection—covering both style and substance—that my wife and I went over—and over—as we waited for the arrival of our first son last July.

In reviewing that material now, I have found what I think are a few lessons that might be applicable in the very different context of student nicknames. Not that our students should be babied, much less infantilized by the naming process. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Let me first back up a bit and define my terms: For our students, what is an "English" name, anyway? Webster defines nickname as "an additional or substitute name given to a person … usually descriptive and given in fun, affection or derision."

To be honest, in designing the questionnaire, my methodology may have been somewhat flawed: I fear I confused the issue merely by using the word "nickname," which a few people took to mean some kind of joke name. This confusion resulted in a number of less-than-serious responses: for example, one student said he chose the name "Lucifer" for himself because "I like the demon." Well, I hope he was kidding. But luckily, not too many students were thrown off in this way; those who followed Lucifer's lead were not legion.

But, to be clear: For our purposes "English nickname" simply means any non-legal name that is adopted by a visa student—for whatever reason or reasons, and for however short or long a period of time—and actually used by him or her in school.

It is not, I hasten to add, necessarily an Anglo-Saxon name. Interestingly, though, one recent study done in the U.S. revealed that there is still a definite preference among foreign students for what might be thought typically Anglo names. And this is true even in those states with a considerable Hispanic population—California and Texas, for instance—where, according to the most recent birth records, the "ethnic" version has become the more frequently chosen name for the youngest Americans. That is to say, in places where the baby Josés now outnumber the baby Josephs. However, the arithmetic is different in the ESL classrooms.

And speaking of numbers, here are some of the ones generated by my simple questionnaire. I made it clear to our students at the outset that their participation was purely voluntary. Approximately 350 students were invited to answer ten questions, and almost 270 did so.
Of those who did the questionnaire—225 students—86% said that, Yes, they did have an English nickname.

Of those with a nickname, 61% said they had chosen it themselves.

They were then asked about how much time—and thought—had gone into the selection of a new name (whoever had made that choice). And here the numbers came out a bit strange. The top answer was "about five minutes" with 40%, which would seem to reflect a very casual attitude to the name game. But a strong second place went to "several days or longer" with 36%, which seems to mean that quite a few students took it very seriously indeed.

It seems the attitudes about this issue of naming are quite polarized: students either think it's a very big deal, and need to sleep on it before making a decision, or else they don't really care about it at all and don't want to waste any time on it. For what it's worth, I personally incline toward the former view, because I feel this whole naming process raises such fundamental issues as identity and individuality, tradition and community, ethnicity and prejudice, power-sharing and gender equality, as well as class envy and career ambition, status anxiety and personal style. As such, I think it matters a hell of a lot what we choose to call ourselves.

So does journalist Barbara Kay (2004), who reminded us in a recent column that "Naming the animals was Adam's first task, so we know that the act of naming is a grave responsibility." Besides, she asks, "How often in life do you have the opportunity to choose a new name for yourself?" (p. A-18) How often indeed. Question Five asked them if they ever use their nickname when they are not in school, and a full 75% said Yes, they do. Question Six asked if they ever thought about changing their nickname, and 77% said No. They wanted to keep the one they had.

Questions 7 & 8 asked them what other names they liked, and didn't like, and why. But their answers here are better appreciated qualitatively than quantitatively, so I'll come back to this.

Question 9 asked them whether they thought it was "very important" to have a good nickname, and why. Sixty-seven percent said Yes it was. But again, I'll leave their reasons till later.

And, finally, Question 10 invited the students with nicknames (86%, you will recall) to speculate as to why some of their classmates chose not to have one, and also gave the other 14% a chance to explain their personal decision to opt out.

So much for the raw numbers. Let's see what the students had to say about why they chose (or were given) their particular names. In many cases, it was pretty straightforward: Anna, who hails from Korea, chose Anna "for convenience"—her expression—and because her Korean name is virtually the same. Likewise, Sam (another Korean) stuck with that because the pronunciation is very similar to the Korean name he shares with disgraced former president Kim Young Sam.

Much the same reasoning was offered by many of our students from China: "Veef" goes by "Veef" because he says it "sounds like" his Chinese name, and "Sean" picked that one because his Chinese name is "Shang-wu-chen."

One student in our department, a young man named John who I suspect is Vietnamese, chose this name because he says it sounds like his real name, Trong, although it doesn't … the way I say it. Speaking of which, another student who doesn't have a nickname—yet—is thinking of getting one because "Canadians don't pronounce my name well." It's a fairly common complaint.

Another popular explanation for nickname choice had to do, not with its sound but its meaning, and again this was often closely tied to their original name. Thus, Eleanor supposedly means "brilliant rays" and the woman who chose it has a Chinese name that means the Sun. Likewise, one young lady employs the nickname Swallow because, she says, her Chinese name means swallow, as in the bird, not the activity.

This method of meaning-based name selection is of course a direct reflection of Chinese culture. In a paper titled "Names: The Mirror of Society," Yu-Zhen Liu (2001, 2) of Tianjin Normal University, explains the rules of the game in China:

The names of nearly all objects around them can be the chosen terms. They might be chosen from the names for creatures … plants … natural phenomena … or the names of places or professions. In selecting names, they usually concentrate on the semantic sense. … For example, they choose tiger for the connotation of power, turtle for long life, happiness for good luck, and treasure for making money.

The meaning of nicknames was also important to some students who consulted a dictionary of English names. Roger picked his name because he read somewhere that it meant "famous." I checked in my Oxford Dictionary of First Names, and sure enough, it does mean something like that. But even though Roger is technically correct here, there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and the Oxford editors explain it very nicely:

In some cultures, the relationship between names and vocabulary words is generally transparent; that is, the names are just special uses of ordinary words. In such cultures, a name can be chosen on account of its meaning. … This is not the case with English, nor with most of the languages of Western Europe. English names are mostly opaque; that is, the 'meaning' of almost all of them is to be sought in languages other than modern English, often ancient languages no longer spoken and only studied by specialists.

This obscurity factor makes quite a difference, and the editors go on to explain why:

"Because of this, among English speakers … there can rarely be any question of choosing a name for a child on the basis of its meaning. A name is chosen either on ornamental grounds—'because it sounds nice'—or in honour of some close relative. These are private reasons for choice."

Let's consider a few more of the so-called private reasons that students were willing to divulge.

Chris chose the name of the hero in a novel he was reading three years ago, and Vivian is a character in one young woman's favourite Chinese work of fiction.

Eric also turned to a book for help, but in a less orthodox way. He writes: "I close[d] my eyes and open[ed] an English name book and I chose this name." Ida may be less bookish than her friends. She simply gave her mother a short list of names, and then mom finally settled on the one that meant lucky, diligent, and happy.

Tiffany got her name from an American friend on the Internet who told her that if he ever had a daughter, he would name her Tiffany. Sunny actually preferred the name Summer until he found out that it was considered a girl's name. Kevin—like several other young guys—picked a name of an NBA basketball star. Tommy went with the label on his designer clothes. Carrie's choice was inspired by the role played by Sissy Spacek in that old Stephen King movie. Meanwhile, our student called Sissi chose this name for a less frightening reason: it is her favourite brand of jelly. One young woman said that she had a nickname but didn't want to use it anymore, or reveal it, because it had been given to her by her ex-boyfriend. And Paris made that choice because, she says, "I like Paris Hilton." Who are we to argue?

Candy chose this name for the simplest of reasons—"because I like candy"—but she admits that "sometimes when the teacher says [my name] my classmates look at me." YoYo blames her sister for this nickname, and says that even as a child she was ridiculed for it. Cher didn't give a reason for her choice, but said she doesn't even like the singer named Cher. About his name, Thunder says, somewhat coyly, "I don't know why, but the girls like it." Evo (the student formerly known as Fish) picked his new name because his favourite car is the Evolution-8. Lesley knows she shares her name with a major street in Toronto, but it wasn't clear from her answer whether she saw this as a good thing or not.

Some students had an overtly political reason for their choice: ROC (R-O-C) can also mean Taiwan, and this student declared: "I am a patriot." SAR (S-A-R: not SARS then, but a bit too close for comfort) liked the name because "it's short and peculiar." And Barbie picked it because—why else?—"I like the doll."

Question 5, you may recall, asked: Do you ever use your nickname when you're not in school? Among the 75% of respondents who said yes, more than one student told me he used it "Everywhere, every time" but several others said they only used it with foreigners. Other answers included: in my home, at the fitness club, on the Internet, and when talking to my church officer.

Question 6, "Have you ever thought about changing your nickname?" got that 77% NO response, but most of the students just said that they liked it, and left it at that. One chose to editorialize a bit, though, and asked: "If you always change your name, how can … people remember you?" A good point. On the YES side, however, I got a few intriguing replies from potential name changers. One young woman said she felt her name (Stella) was better suited to a "mature lady." Marco was also open to the idea of change, and had an upbeat rationale for this: "Maybe there is a better one waiting for me." And Nick also thought about changing his name sometimes, but declined to say exactly why. "It's complicated" was all he wrote.

As for what other names they liked (Question 7), there was again quite a range: One young man who had just seen the movie Troy proposed Achilles and Hector. Another was leaning towards Mars or Venus because "those names are god's name." And Ted was tempted by Zeus for much the same reason. (Personally, I always kind of liked Mercury.)

Not to be outdone, Johnson weighed in ecumenically with both Moses and Christ because he said "they have a nice meaning." And, speaking of gods that failed, one student still had a soft spot for Marx, although he claimed (perhaps somewhat disingenuously) to like it for purely apolitical reasons. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese patriot mentioned earlier favoured Rumsfeld, but he too denied any political agenda: "It [just] sounds great!" was all he would say. To some ears, I suppose it might.

Speaking of politics, another passage from Professor Liu's paper (2001, 3-4) is worth noting here: In a section headed "The Reflection of the Social Features of the Time," dealing with the Cultural Revolution of the late '60s, she writes: "In those years, everything had to be revolutionized … In order to follow the tide, newborn babies were given names associated with the revolution. Many adults changed their names as a token of revolutionizing themselves. Phrases such as 'learning from the workers', 'learning from the peasants', or 'learning from the soldiers' were popular names of the day."

She goes on to say: "In the Department of Foreign Languages of the university where I work, seven of the fifty teachers changed their names, though only five survive. Chun-niang, which means river girl, was changed into Yan-jun, which means following the army [though it didn't say where]. Another name, Cheng-ming, which means to inherit fame, was changed to Wei-min, meaning for the people.

On a lighter note, one ingenious student liked the name Ivy because I-V-Y can be a code for I-Love-You. And one young person who really should have grown up here in the 1960s, liked the names Jazz and Cloud.

That might sound a bit flaky to our ears, but we have to be on guard against our own prejudices and cultural chauvinism. As Christine Savidou (2002, 2-3) cautions in her article, "Understanding Chinese Names: Cross-Cultural Awareness in the EFL Classroom":

"Teachers often formulate superficial opinions about Chinese names which show them to be entertaining or [ridiculous]." But, she advises, we need to get over that, or at least beyond it, and realize "that while the names Chinese students use may at first seem amusing … confusing or problematic, they are in fact the result of rational and logical choices.". To which I would only add: well, sometimes.

Question 8 was a chance for them to get down and dirty and talk about the names they hated, and why. And they were not shy about doing so. One student got straight to the point, saying he hated "stupid names which sound stupid or mean stupid things." (That pretty much covers it.) Many names like Tom or Bob were rejected because they were "too normal," or "too old." Others were shot down because "in my country people usually choose them for pets" or simply because they were hard to pronounce. Kathy hated Lucy and Lilly because these are the names they always used in her middle school English book (painful memories, presumably).

One young man felt quite strongly that he would never want to be called "Short man" or "Baldy." Another, who wisely chose to remain anonymous, cited "Short leg" and "Short stick" as tags to avoid at all cost. He then confided, rather poignantly: "The short … is my complex." And yet another firmly rejected the name Dick because "This is the first impression you give to people." Perhaps Richard Nixon should have thought about that.

More than two-thirds of those who have a nickname think it's important to have a good one. Here are a couple of the reasons they offered: "A nickname shows what kind of person you are." And "Your nickname can show your inner spirit." There is, according to Shingo Muriyama (2003), a Japanese expression along the same lines: "names and natures agree."

But there were also some dissenting voices, even among those who had nicknames. One wrote, rather cryptically: "If you don't want to cheat somebody, a nickname is unnecessary." And another said: "It's not interesting me. I don't care. It's not very important." (I wonder what she really feels about the subject.) One modern woman wrote with cool rationality: "Some people might say [otherwise] but I think personality is influenced by environment, society, and culture. Not [by] the name."

Still, many students saw this whole issue as a matter of personal choice—"[It's] none of my business" one wrote—and felt that once someone's choice had been made, it was worthy of other people's respect. Clearly, they did not want to get "judgmental" about it. A typical comment: "Every name is OK, if the person likes it."

The final question asked why it is that some students don't use nicknames. Their answers were quite wide-ranging. A few people went so far as to ascribe bad motives or bad character to these nay-sayers: "Maybe he or she isn't friendly or easy-going or open." Or else "they are too serious." Or they might even be guilty of reverse snobbery. As one disapproving student put it: "They want to be special." How dare they?

But, true to form, most students were not critical of their no-nickname classmates: "Maybe they think their no-nonsense name is the best." Maybe they have "religious reasons." Perhaps "He or she is traditional." "They want to be called by the name given by their parents." "They don't "want to be changed by their surroundings." They want "to be themselves."

A couple of other answers to this last question really surprised me. One had a rather wistful tone: "Maybe [such names] make them think some sad things." The other theory was more devious. Keep in mind that nicknames make life easier for the teacher—both to remember student names and to pronounce them. But, as this shrewd respondent put it, maybe these students "don't want their teacher to call [on] them a lot." I think that's brilliant, and I wish I'd thought of that back in law school.

Since all of this stuff about names is intensely individual, allow me to add a personal note: My own family name, McConkey, is a bit unusual, and there were times as a child when I would have preferred something more "normal." Growing up I was forever having to repeat it for people or correct their pronunciation. You get used to a lot of variations on the spelling, too. One time I got a letter from the Salvation Army addressed to a Dear Mr. McDonkey, asking for money. They didn't get any from me. Yet, strangely enough, all my international students are able to spell and pronounce my family name very well indeed.

In the mid 1990s I had the good fortune to teach overseas for four years at a university in Korea. Before going, one Korean friend of mine—I thought of him as a friend at the time—told me I should consider adopting a home-grown version of my family name. As you may know, that country's naming system is heavily influenced by both Confucian ideas and Chinese tradition: expensive astrologers are routinely consulted before baby names are chosen, and professional people typically use Chinese characters (three of them, with the last name first) rather than Korean letters on their business cards.

My buddy's suggested name for me seemed quite clever: Ma Gon Gi, which approximated the sound of Mc-Con-key. And he also gave me what he said were the best Chinese characters (there are usually several homonyms to choose from) to go along with each of those sounds. Naturally, I was delighted, and so, shortly after arriving in Korea, I tried the name out on a few people. I got a rather strange reaction from most of them. It turns out Ma Gon Gi, as my friend had rendered it in Chinese, translates roughly as Powerful Horse Rising Up, which sounds impressive. But apparently it can also be interpreted to mean something like: Stud with a really big … erection. To make matters worse, a certain academic named Ma, a professor of literature, was notorious just then for having published what was widely thought to be a pornographic novel (although, to be fair, standards of public decency in Korea at the time were somewhat puritanical). In any case, I stopped using my catchy name after a few weeks, or at least, started giving it out much more selectively.

When our own son was born last summer, my Korean wife and I wanted to give him a couple of names, to reflect his bicultural roots. For his English one we ultimately chose Maxwell, which was my father's name. We agreed on this even though we both knew by then, from having read several baby books, that Max is now the number one name in North America for dogs.

We had a hard time reaching this consensus, though. I had previously suggested Chester, my grandfather's name, but that sounded like an old man to her. My uncle Wilfred's name also got short shrift. She then countered with any number of ridiculous suggestions, mostly offered by her meddling colleagues at work. I think the worst was Tristan.

It wasn't easy. The novelist Zoe Heller (2003), while awaiting the arrival of her second child last year, touched on the enormous difficulty of reaching agreement with her other half about the new baby's name. She wrote:

"I have reached that point in gestation when the issue of what to call the forthcoming spawn has become paramount. All around my apartment, there are little lists scribbled feverishly on the backs of envelopes. These have usually been composed by me in the insomniac small hours, when it is possible to believe that Storm and Cherry are beautiful, romantic names that the father of my child will be unable to resist.

But prosaic morning always comes and, with it, a rude riposte to my midnight delusions.

"What, are you nuts?" my boyfriend cries, brandishing the envelopes over breakfast, "I've told you already: no weather, no fruit."

Naming is a fraught business. I have [she confessed] a weakness for the sort of louche, frivolous names favoured by celebrities."

While I do not share Ms. Heller's fondness for the names that, say, pop musicians come up with, I do find them interesting. We all know by now that the late Frank Zappa named his lucky kids Dweezil and Moon Unit. Michael Jackson, for his part, allegedly sired Prince Michael II. Keith Richards chose Dandelion for his daughter, but she later switched it to Angela. And David Bowie couldn't resist calling his son Zowie, though this was later changed to Joe and then changed again to Duncan.

Actually, Duncan was another name on my baby list, because it is both pleasing to my Celtic ear and genealogically apposite: The McConkeys, before they staggered out of Scotland for the promise of a more peaceful life in Northern Ireland, belonged to Clan Robertson, whose ancestral chief bore the Gaelic name—I have no idea how to pronounce this—"Donnachadh Riach," which roughly translates as "Fat Duncan." Alas, our stout leader was not, as I had briefly fantasized, the founder of Dunkin Donuts, which is why I am not a millionaire today. But I digress.

For those non-celebrities among us who want to avoid both the banal and the bizarre, one of the thorniest problems is how to be at least slightly original. Zoe Heller has found this to be an exercise in futility: "You may fool yourself for a while that you are dipping into an exclusive well of private association and personal taste, when you choose your names. But nine times out of ten, it transpires that you have been tapping into the same Zeitgeist as everyone in your socio-economic category. … It is a rather depressing thing to see one's heartfelt choices revealed as the clichés they are. But [she concludes] helpful none the less."

Ah, yes: the zeitgeist. For the record, the top ten baby names for 2003, at least in the United States, are as follows. For the girls, in order: Emily, Emma, Madison, Hannah, Hailey, Sarah, Kaitlyn, Isabella, Olivia, and Abigail. For the boys, from the top: Jacob, Aidan, Ethan, Matthew, Nicholas, Joshua, Ryan, Michael, Zachary, and Tyler.

If you looked way back to, say, the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the boys' list would have looked and sounded completely different: William, John, Charles, Harry, James, George, Frank, Robert, Joseph and Thomas. And, somewhat surprisingly, that list wouldn't have changed all that much a hundred years later.

Meanwhile, the girls' list back around 1850 was as follows: Mary, Anna, Elizabeth, Emma, Alice, Edith, Florence, May, Helen, and Katherine. And many of those names were still popular in 1950. But only one of them, Emma, can be found on the top ten list today.

Topping the charts, of course, makes you popular, but also—by definition—common. And therein lies the problem: How can your kid sound more exotic, without sounding like an exotic dancer?

Looking down our department's registry of students, my vote for the very best female name, different but not too different, is Lavanda. Second place goes to Calpurnia, but that is a bit of a mouthful. Among the other girls' names that strike me as edgy, if arguably lacking in gravitas, I found Bobo, Zozo, and Dodo. For the boys, I think the nod goes to Elvis. Not everyone is a fan, I know, but it certainly beats Potato, which is what one student calls himself. His mother gave him that name, he explained, because she felt his head was shaped like one.

Anyway, after my wife and I had finally agreed on Max as our son's "English" name, we wanted him to have a Korean middle name, to honour his Asian heritage, and this proved an even tougher decision. Both of us knew enough to avoid some of the obvious howlers such as Young Bum—he'd never get a job—or You Suck—he'd never get a date. We needed something distinctive, meaningful, and impossible for Anglophones to mispronounce.

My wife's Korean name is Yong-Kyong. Yong spelled like Yonge Street (without the E) and Kyong as in, I don't know, Kyonge Street.

If her choice of spelling seems at first a bit odd—her use of O rather than OU—you need to know that the Romanization of Korean—the conversion of Hangul vowels and consonants into our alphabet—is a tricky business at the best of times. Basically, it's either going to look weird or sound weird.

There is also the problem of orthographic inconsistency. When I lived in Korea, the names on the maps never seemed to match the ones on the road signs. It seemed a conspiracy against foreigners. Then I found out the real reason: the ministry of tourism and the ministry of transport simply couldn't agree on the same system of Romanization. Or else they once had, but didn't anymore. Or something.

This could make for some scary moments. One time I was lined up at the bus terminal, waiting to purchase a ticket to Kangnung, a lovely coastal town on the East Sea (aka the Sea of Japan, but not of course in Korea—place names matter too). I thought the town was spelled KANG-NUNG, but then I glanced at my ticket and read GANG-REUNG. Where are they taking me? I wondered out loud, in a slight panic. Just then, the kindly woman standing behind me in line spoke up to reassure me, "Don't worry, same, same." And she was right.

Yong-Kyong's English name is Joanne. How did she get it? Well, she had just come back to Korea after studying for a year in England—this was before we ever met—and she needed to find a job, preferably one that would allow her to continue practising her English. She got an interview with a French company, oddly enough, and it must have gone well because she was offered a position on the spot, and gratefully accepted.

At which point the interviewer, a Frenchwoman, strongly suggested that Yong-Kyong, who would be dealing a lot with "foreigners" (that's us, remember) should select an English-sounding name to make things easier all around. (Her nickname in England had been "Bubbles," but that now seemed a bit too frivolous for the working world, or at least the respectable, nine-to-five part thereof.) She agreed, and the two of them hastily flipped through a list of approved names together, before settling on Joanne.

As it happens, the newly christened Joanne went home that night, thought about the new job, and decided it would be too boring. So she called back the next day to say thanks but no thanks. But she kept the name, and uses it still, some seven years later. It has become part of who she is.

Our boy, who is now one year old, is called Young-Jo, which of course is a combination of his mother's Korean and English names. It is also the name of Young-Cho Hwang, a famous marathon runner who won the gold medal for Korea at the Barcelona Olympics.

While I was actually the one who came up with this name, after many false starts, I naturally deferred to Joanne when it came to picking the right Chinese characters to go along with it. We also enlisted the help of a good friend of ours, a Korean banker, who agreed to do some research on this—for free.

But he was very careful not to make the final decision for us because, as he explained in his report, the stakes were too high: "Korean people [believe] the name decides his/her life and so-called destiny. Therefore I cannot decide [on] the [best] Chinese characters for Young Cho."

And so it fell to Young-Jo's mother to make the call, which seemed only right. She briefly considered several other Chinese character combination combinations, including "swimming grandfather" (which struck me as vaguely Maoist) and "eternal construction" (which sounded like the perfect motto for Newnham campus) but finally opted for "shining hero," which sounds just about right to me. Or maybe it's just the way I'm saying it:

"When someone loves you, they say your name differently. And you know your name will be safe in their mouth."

References:

Fame's name game, or the celebrity mothers of invention. (2004, May 18). Toronto Star, p. C6.

Charles, L. H. (1951). Drama in first-naming ceremonies. Journal of American Folklore (64) 11-35.

Deluzzain, H. E. (1996). Names and Personal Identity. Behind the Name: The Etymology and History of First Names. http://www.behindthename.com/articles/html.

Heller, Z. (2003). Her name might be 'Smelly' in Farsi. The Daily Telegraph.

Kay, B. (2004, June 2). "Stop, Steve!—and other naming conundrums." National Post, p. A18

Liu, Y. (2001, March 30). Names: The mirror of a society. Unpublished paper presented at the annual Massachusetts State Colleges Graduate Research Symposium, Fitchburg, MA.

Muriyama, S. (2003, April). Negotiating identity with an English nickname. Unpublished paper presented at the annual TESOL Conference, Baltimore, Maryland.

Rosenkrantz, L. & Redmond-Satran, P. (1999). Beyond Jason & Jennifer, Madison & Montana. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Savidou, C. (2002). Understanding Chinese names: Cross-cultural awareness in the EFL classroom. The Internet TESL Journal, 8(9).


Rob McConkey has a B.A. (Toronto), LL.B. (Osgoode/York), M.Ed. (Brock), and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (Cambridge). He was called to the Ontario Bar in 1985: Barrister, Solicitor & Notary Public (non-practising) and is a member of TESL Ontario. He teaches in the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto and can be reached by email at robert.mcconkey@senecac.on.ca.

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